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Ice Music: Not One, But Two! Annual Festivals

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My interest in the science of ice is pretty much instantly displaced by a surge of creative alertness the minute I hear ice music. Ice drum, ice marimba, ice trumpet, ice harp: the sounds are indescribable, ranging from haunting to melodious to intensely beautiful but almost unfriendly. If you hear them out of context there’s a confusion of the sounds seeming familiar-yet-unfamiliar: is it wind through stone holes on a beach? A marimba resonating in a huge, hollow space? A cluster of narrow glass wedges tangling brightly, releasing high-pitched, delicate tones when a breeze shimmers through them?

Listening to ice music takes me to full-body attention, an attempt to translate what I’m hearing into new savorings of fascination and pleasure, followed by understanding.

I’m not the only one who finds ice music so incredible. There used to be only one Ice Music Festival in the world. By 2009, not counting numerous standalone ice-instrument concerts, at least two recurring festivals have been established: one in Norway, and one in Italy.

Norwegian percussionist Terje Isungset started the simply-titled IceMusic Festival, likely the world’s first international ice music festival, in 2006 (see http://www.icefestival.no/). Located in the ski resort town Geilo, near Bergen, it’s scheduled to coincide with the first full moon of each year. Each festival edition profiles different ice instruments, such as ice udus in 2006, pictured above. The program also includes singers, dancers, performance artists and always plenty of percussionists. (For a taste of Isungset’s ice trumpet, see this Ice Cubicle post from last week.)

For 2009, the IceMusic Festival invited US ice sculptor Bill Covitz to craft the featured instruments: an ice harp and an ice fiddle. These instruments still use regular strings, but their resonating bodies are frozen water.

Top Norwegian musicians brought the fragile instruments to life: the harp was played by Sisdel Walstad, while the experimental musician Nils Økland stretched the possibilities of the ice Hardanger fiddle.

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US filmmaker Susan Williamson filmed footage of the 2007 IceMusic Festival. According to the blog http://www.icemusicmovie.blogspot.com/ she is working on a documentary called Ice Music: Moon Magic. The blog only has two posts, so I’m not sure of the status of this project, but her six-minute trailer on YouTube gives a great range of ice music sounds along with some surprising shots of Terje Isungset and others carving ice instruments from 750-year-old chunks of a Norwegian glacier – with chainsaws.

Now, about the Italian festival. Also called the Ice Music Festival (but with a space between the words), was initiated by US ice-instrument builder Tim Linhart in 2007; it runs in late February each year (see http://www.icefestival.it/). The host location: an ice dome built by Linhart in 2008 among the scattered villages of the Val Senales valley, at the Val Senales glacier, northern Italy.

Not surprisingly, many ice-instrument musicians perform at both the Val Senales festival and the Geilo festival. Here’s a shot of Terje Isungset in action at the 2009 Val Senales Ice Music Festival.

Both festivals take the ice theme as far as possible by creating an ice dome that includes stage, stairways and various platforms for sitting on. The Norwegians even included an ice screen in 2008 for showing several films.

An additionally mysterious atmosphere surrounds the visual and aural beauty of the ice music performances because audiences sit in semi-darkness. No spotlights or stage lighting can be used – the ice instruments would become steam instruments.

From clips and interviews I could find in English, it seems the musicians attracted to ice instruments are passionate experimenters, open to (and able to) improvising. Isungset points out that the instruments are difficult to make because two pieces of ice might be identical – cut out from right beside each other from the same chunk of ice – but one will produce long resonant tones and the other won’t produce anything. Not to mention that the instruments can change their tone from day to day, due to temperature fluctuations.

An unidentified ice-instrument builder in Williamson’s trailer about the Geilo festival emphasized that the festivals will be kept small for now. “If we can just let this festival be small enough for us to do the big stuff – I believe in a big festival it’s hard to get big emotional moments, and I believe in small festivals to be able to do and create the big emotional moments,” he said.

While many Canadians excitedly anticipate Vancouver’s Winter Olympics when they flip forward through their calendars, I know where I want to be in January 2010.

P.S. I’m continuing to work out my own experiments with ice drums and ice rattles, thanks to drumming friends in Vancouver and Dawson City. Video clips from these works will show up here in The Ice Cubicle in the next weeks.

  • Updated January 16, 2017
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